Iron Deficiency 101: Symptoms & How to Improve Your Iron Levels

Have you ever felt breathless after climbing stairs, or felt fatigued without any particular reason? Perpahs you felt chest pain, were short of breath and noticed that you have cold feet and hands, brittle nails and weakened hair. You should not panic, and instead, you should schedule a doctor’s appointment and then do a blood sample test. In most cases, people who have these symptoms are only having iron deficiency.

Not every iron deficiency is anaemia, but in some cases, if the iron is below the normal level, it can cause serious health issues. In such a case your doctor will recommend making a change in your diet and lifestyle and might prescribe some of the iron tablets on the market. Here are the main things you need to know about iron and how to improve low iron levels.

Why Does the Body Need Iron and How to Know If Your Iron Levels Are Low?

Iron is a mineral that is responsible for the growth of all cells. With its help, our red blood cells carry oxygen to the rest of the body. About two-thirds of the body’s iron is found in haemoglobin, the protein created in red blood cells. And while iron can be consumed through food, iron deficiency is the top nutritional deficiency in the world and the most common cause for anaemia.

Low Iron Symptoms

Almost everyone has had low iron levels at some point in their life. Usually, the symptoms are fatigue, feeling tired even when doing simple physical activities such as climbing stairs, feeling cold, decreased focus which leads to worsened results at school or work, shortness of breath, chest pain and impaired immunity system. Fatigue is the most common symptom, although it may not be associated with iron deficiency anaemia, since many diseases, conditions may lead to fatigue.

Nevertheless, it’s not uncommon for individuals to have iron deficiency and have no symptoms. Some people simply can’t absorb iron into their bloodstream. This can be because of an intestinal disorder (often happens in individuals with celiac disease). If part of the small intestine has been bypassed or removed surgically, that can also be a reason for the inability to absorb iron and other nutrients.

The best way to know if your iron levels have dropped is to do a blood sample test. If the test shows that your iron levels are low, your doctor will suggest taking appropriate measures depending on your health status.

Who Is At Risk of Iron Deficiency?

Although anyone can face low iron levels at some point in their life, certain groups of people are more predisposed to this than others. People who have an imbalanced immune system such as cancer patients, but also people who follow certain diets such as vegan or vegetarian, as well as pregnant women (and women in general since they lose blood during their cycle), frequent blood donors, and children are the ones most likely to develop iron deficiency.

How to Improve Your Iron Levels?

There are two forms of dietary iron available: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is better absorbed than non-heme. It’s found in animal foods like red meats, fish and seafood and poultry. Non-heme iron is the iron found in plant-based foods like beans, lentils and fortified cereals. Dry fruits, bread and pasta are also good sources of non-heme iron. Tofu is another great source of non-heme iron for vegans and vegetarians.

Since people following a vegan and vegetarian diet avoid non-heme iron sources, they are the most likely to have a deficiency and need to supplement their diet. However, in some cases, even if people follow a traditional diet that includes meat, eggs and milk, they might still need to take supplements because for some reason their body isn’t able to metabolise the iron ingested via food.

Food containing natural iron. Fe: Liver, avocado, broccoli, spinach, parsley, beans, nuts, on a black stone background. Top view.

If your iron levels are dangerously low and you can’t improve them with the help of food, you may need to supplement with your doctor will recommend a dose of supplemental iron based on your age and gender, health state and whether you’re pregnant or not. The recommended dietary allowances for iron are 8 micrograms for men aged 19-50 and 18 micrograms for women aged 19-50. Pregnant women can take 27 micrograms of iron supplements on daily basis.

These supplements aren’t vitamins so you can take them whenever you feel like so. It is important to do a blood sample test before you get your iron supplements, and do another blood sample test after a month to see how they’re working and whether you need to increase or decrease the dose. Even if you have the usual symptoms of iron deficiency such as fatigue, feeling cold, a disrupted immune system and so on, don’t take any supplements without consulting with your doctor.